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A Few Questions for Donald Shriver

Donald W. Shriver, Jr. is a Professor of Ethics and President Emeritus at Union Theological Seminary.  His book Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough To Remember Its Misdeeds, recently won the prestigious Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion. Below we ask Shriver some questions about his book and the Grawemeyer Award.

OUP: What inspired you to write Honest Patriots: Loving a Country Enough To Remember Its Misdeeds?

Donald Shriver: My 1995 OUP book, An Ethic for Enemies: Forgiveness in Politics argued that forgiveness, often deemed a word for something religious and personal, ought to be translated into secular, collective affairs, too. That was the claim of Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition. My ’95 book explored secular-political versions of forgiveness in the recent relations of Germany, Japan, and the USA, and also in the long struggle of African Americans to become full citizens of a country whose forebears enslaved their ancestors.

In the process of writing that book, I became newly aware that forgiveness and repentance are twin requirements for real reconciliation between peoples who have harmed and suffered harm from each other. Forgiveness and repentance together build the bridge—from opposite shores– towards reconciliation between alienated peoples. So, having written about forgiveness in politics, I felt obligated to write about repentance in politics.

I have lived in the century which of all centuries of human existence has seen the most deaths from violence, organized mostly by governments in their wars, genocides, and massacres. If we don’t remember those horrors and remember them repentantly, our planet may not have another century of human life worth living.

OUP: What do you think of the United States’ response to 9/11?

Shriver: After 9/11 I think that our government missed a great opportunity to cement some closer relations with other countries of the world, in four respects:

  1. We decided that we should go to “war” against our terrorist enemies rather than ferreting them out as international criminals. If we had defined them as the latter, we might have come together with many other nations equally threatened by terrorists. Instead, on false premises, we invaded Iraq, alienated much of the Muslim world, and paid little respect for countries whose citizens initially expressed great empathy for the USA and great rejection of terrorist crimes. We adopted a view, “You’re with us or against us,” which led to thoughtless, clumsy international politics.
  2. We thought too highly of our military might. We thought it enough to bring democracy to the Middle East. We neglected the cultural-political understanding that might have cautioned us against the illusion that we could start and end an Iraq war in six or eight weeks.
  3. Our leaders seldom if ever exercised the wisdom that might have see the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of 3000 Americans as an event which leads to increased empathy for similar unjust deaths in conflicts around the world in recent decades. It was as if the deaths of 3000 Americans were more outrageous than the deaths of 40,000 Londoners in World War Two, not to speak of the mass deaths of civilians in wars of the past 50 years on every continent. One of my heroines is a 12 year old African American grammar school student who, on visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, turned to her companion and said, “See, other people have suffered, too.” That exhibits moral maturity. We did not have it exhibited much by our national leaders after 9/11.
  4. Finally, after it was demonstrated that those leaders got us into the Iraq war on false premises, none of them ever said to the U.S. or world public, “We’re sorry.” The Bush administration owes us an apology. That is a debt still to be paid by some administration in the future. To pay it is to engage in some form of repentance in our collective life.

OUP: Can you give us an example of American “patriotic repentance”?  Of a time that we have successfully made peace with a past history of injustice?

Shriver: The best American example I know is one fully described in my ’95 book: How, over a period of 14 years (1976-90) our national government apologized (in 1976) for the 1942 confinement of 120,000 Japanese Americans behind barbed wire for the duration of WWII, set up a version of a truth commission to interview survivors of the camps (1982), published a full report of the commission findings, authorized a sum of $50,000,000 to establish a foundation on behalf of educational interests of Japanese-Americans, and sent a presidential apology (in 1990) with a token sum of $20,000 to each living survivor of the camps. All this was done in the overt admission that this treatment of Japanese Americans in the early ‘40s, rooted in wartime hysteria, was Unamerican, a violation of the country’s best legal traditions, e.g. confinement without trial. The relevance of this event to the coming of the misnamed “Patriot Act” of 2001, is only too clear…Guantanamo, torture, rendition, Abu Ghraib, electronic eavesdropping on American citizens.

OUP: How can Americans best take responsibility for the “dark side” of our national history?

Shriver: That’s what the final three chapters of Honest Patriots are all about. Among other approaches I have explored:

  • Honoring publicly the courage of citizens, often a minority, who first bring to public light the truth about past injustices, e.g. the race riots of 1921, and the long post-civil war crimes of lynching.
  • Having patience, as citizens, for politicians who are honest enough to admit (if not their own) the gross mistakes of their predecessors. (e.g. in June 2005 the US Senate passed a resolution of apology for the fact that the Senate had never, in 140 years, passed a federal law against lynching.)
  • Funding and visiting museums that treat parts of our negative history, e.g.the opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, the national and local expressions of racism in all parts of the country. (e.g. a museum in New York City which portrayed slavery in the city’s history).
  • Deciding that a national past is always worth re-study. Many Americans old and young say: “It’s history,” by which we mean, “It’s past and gone.” Not so, at least not for the descendants of people who suffered greatly in the past from collective actions of governments and other institutions. Ask Native Americans if they are about to forget the Trail of Tears, Wounded Knee, or the mismanagement of money owed them still by the US Department of the Interior.
  • Being willing to study the history of other countries—Germany and South Africa are the leading examples in my book—who have learned to face their painful pasts: as has Germany re: the Nazis and as did South Africa re: the apartheid era as uncovered by its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
  • As parents, refusing to protest against history books our children may be studying in public school when those books are critical of what we’d like think is our country’s purely heroic past. Was General Custer really heroic? Didn’t Thomas Jefferson violate his own philosophy in keeping slaves right down to his death? Are Native Americans justified in saying that their ancestors were the objects of genocide? How did Europeans get the idea that white people were superior to all other peoples? Etc.

Maybe the ultimate hope of my book is: To do justice we must remember injustice, and to become real fellow citizens with each other in this immigrant nation, we must appreciate each other’s history.

OUP: What other countries do you think have exhibited honest repentance?

Shriver: In the book I have nominated Germany, South Africa, and the USA. I celebrate governmental, citizen, and institutional action in all three countries which qualify as honest repentance. Chile, Guatemala, and Canada offer some examples, imperfect but real.

Among the countries that have NOT shown much genuine facing of their negative pasts are Japan, Russia, China, Turkey, and Serbia. What an agenda for future apology is now building up in Zimbabwe!

OUP: What other books would you recommend for study of this subject?

Shriver: David Blight, Race and Reunion (a study of post-1865 Reconstruction)
Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace (the struggle to forgive)
Priscilla Hayner, Unspeakable Truths (a study of 21 truth commissions)
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me
Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness
Pumla Gobodo-Mdikisela, A Human Being Died That Night
Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull (the S. Africa TRC)
Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell (genocides of the 20th century)
Geiko Mueller-Fahrenholz, America’s Battle For God (a German view)
Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks
Vine Deloria, Jr., Custer Died for Your Sins
Roger Wilkins, Jefferson’s Pillow

OUP: Tell us a little about winning the Grawemeyer award.

Shriver: At first I could not believe it.  Next I felt a bit of “survivor’s syndrome,” i.e. why me, when there are lots of other books that might well deserve such an award?  Then I began to feel a huge gratitude that a retired teacher and scholar like me would get such an award, towards the end of his career.  And finally I had to rejoice that, because of Grawemeyer, the ideas in this book might be pondered by more readers than might otherwise read it.  And, in addition, given the current recession-drain on the resources we have to live on in retirement, the monetary award could not have been more timely!

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